Cal Poly slotback Mark Rodgers had the best game of his career in a 38-24 victory at South Dakota last season.
The former West Virginia transfer ran for 235 yards, including touchdown runs of 44 and 74 yards with the longer one giving the Mustangs the lead for good in a back-and-forth game.
Rodgers also completed a 7-yard pass while running the wildcat formation.
But with the No. 17 Coyotes (5-3, 2-0 Great West Conference) in town today for a return visit that will give the victor at least a share of the last Great West football title before its members bolt for greener pastures, Cal Poly (4-3, 2-0) will likely have to do without its leader in all-purpose yards.
After suffering a shoulder injury in last week’s 23-19 victory at North Dakota, Rodgers went into Friday’s walkthrough having yet to practice this week. He was seen at Thursday’s practice wearing his jersey over a sweatshirt with his right arm bundled out of the sleeve underneath.
The Mustangs could also be without All-America cornerback Asa Jackson for the second-straight game. Jackson has been out with a broken foot since hurting it on the opening play of the second half in a 31-27 victory over Southern Utah two weeks ago.
Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said Jackson practiced “a little bit” Thursday and that both players hope to get the call to play by today’s 6 p.m. kickoff at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
More likely, the Mustangs will have to do without both, meaning that Cal Poly would also be without one of the best punt returners in the country and the team’s top two kickoff returners.
“They want to play,” Walsh said. “So, if they can play, they’ll play. The ball’s in their court, but we’ll never put a player out there that isn’t physically able to do what he needs to be able to do. That won’t happen.
“We’re pretty confident in the return game. We’ve got guys that can return the football, so that’s not a big issue. The big issue is the ability for those guys to play. They’re great players, but in this game, you play with who’s healthy.”
Jackson has been replaced by safety Greg Francis on punt returns. On four returns this season, Francis has 6 yards. Jackson averaged 15.4 yards on five returns, a mark that would rank him in the top five in the FCS if he had fielded the minimum of 1.2 per game.
Francis did however gain 52 yards in his lone punt return last season.
On kickoff returns, both Jackson and Rodgers averaged more than 21 yards. Junior receiver Brandon Michalkiewicz averaged 14.3 yards on three kick returns as an injury fill-in last week.
Even though Rodgers’ injury could keep him out this week, the situation was dire enough last week that coaches re-inserted Rodgers to field a crucial kick return late in the game.
If Rodgers is unable to go, Michalkiewicz will get help fielding kickoffs from wide receiver and track sprinter Jarred Houston, who has returned kicks each of the past two seasons and returned one 32 yards at McNeese State last year.
Redshirt freshman Chris Nicholls was a returner at Servite High and could also be called upon today.
Deonte Williams would replace Rodgers in Cal Poly’s triple option, but it will have to come against a team well-practiced against option principles.
South Dakota fell 37-20 in its season opener against Air Force, allowing 391 yards and 6.4 per rush against the Falcons but gaining valuable experience against an option attack in the process.
“I don’t think that Air Force game was scheduled for any other reason than to give them extra preparation,” Walsh said. “If you’re going to play an FBS team, that’s a good team to play if you’re in a league with Cal Poly.”
Defensively, the Mustangs are primed for another big effort at home.
Cal Poly has been much more adept at creating confusion at Spanos Stadium than it has on the road.
Of the Mustangs’ 11 sacks this season, 10 have come at home, including five in a 48-14 win over South Dakota State and four in a 31-27 victory over Southern Utah.
Pass-rushing senior defensive end Gavin Cooper returned from preseason ankle surgery to rack up a sack in limited play in a 44-25 home victory over Central Oklahoma, and he’s been available each week since.
Cooper’s presence has given Cal Poly a much-needed rusher on passing downs, complementing the play of fellow senior end Kyle Murphy, who leads the team with six sacks.
Murphy had three against the Jackrabbits and three against the Thunderbirds, and he said multiple factors affect the disparity between home and road sacks.
“The matchups help,” Murphy said. “We’ve been playing more passing teams at home, but also the crowd. There’s nothing better than playing in front of a large crowd with energy. It just makes a big game that much bigger.”